A Billion Little Things: Reflections on Earth Day 2011

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

This morning we’ve been hearing the voices of a small portion of a truly great cloud of earth witnesses—people of faith from many religious traditions across the planet—proclaiming over the last decade or so: it is time—it is long past time—to slow, stall, or stunt; to arrest, interrupt or reduce; to contain, confine or control; to stop—to finally stop—if at all possible, the progress of global warming and environmental degradation caused by human activity. These are not the voices of isolated individuals or small groups of liberal religious people within larger denominations in the United States and Europe who have historically been sympathetic to the environmental movement. These are not the voices of Native Americans and other earth-centered indigenous populations around the world who have critiqued and questioned the western, industrial nations’ environmental practices for generations. No, many of these religious voices we’ve been hearing this morning represent whole denominations joining the environmental movement in earnest very recently—over the past decade or so.

Among them are Roman Catholic Popes and Conferences of Bishops, the Environmental Network of the Worldwide Anglican Communion, the Executive Council of the Episcopalian Church in the United States, the United Methodists’ General Board of Church and Society, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Quaker Earth-Care Witness and the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the American Baptist Church and the Southern Baptist Convention which said in 2008 that despite a lack of unanimity in the science of climate change, “we resolve to engage this issue without any further lingering over the basic reality of the problem or our responsibility to address it.”[1]

Among these voices are hundreds of conservative evangelical Christian leaders who’ve signed onto the Evangelical Climate initiative[2] and who have adopted the term “creation care” to name their environmental activity. Also among these voices is the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople where the Patriarch Bartholomew—the global leader of Christian Orthodoxy—has issued more than 200 statements on the environment, has been known as the “Green Patriarch” since the mid-1990s, and was voted one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2008 for defining environmentalism as a spiritual responsibility.[3]

These are the voices of Reform Judaism’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism, Conservative Judaism’s Rabbinical Assembly, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. These are the voices of Jainist scholars and spiritual leaders, Hindu scholars and spiritual leaders, Islamic scholars and spiritual leaders, Buddhist scholars and spiritual leaders, including the 14th Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. And of course, among these voices are those of countless indigenous peoples around the planet. And of course, among these voices is the Unitarian Universalist Association which has been issuing resolutions on the environment and global warming for decades.

I’m sure I’m missing many faith groups that have added their voices to the great cloud of earth witnesses calling on world governments to deal swiftly and dramatically with the causes of global warming. I cannot name them all but I take heart that so many religious bodies have, over the last ten years or so, recognized the scope of the environmental problems we face—that so many religious leaders now openly proclaim this is not simply a matter of right and wrong; it is a matter of human survival; and that so many people of faith across the planet are beginning to take steps to change their behavior—conserving resources like energy and water; eating locally grown food; increasing the energy efficiency of their homes and offices; recycling; composting; using compact fluorescent light bulbs; developing community and organic gardens; planting native species; investing in green jobs; turning away from fossil fuels, turning to renewable energy sources—turning to wind power, to solar power, to geo-thermal heating and cooling, to bio-diesel fuel—turning, turning, turning—a billion little things, every day, all across the planet, adding up to change on a global scale. I take heart.

The 41st annual Earth Day is this coming Friday, April 22nd. Since last year’s Earth Day two energy-related environmental disasters have garnered world attention and dramatized inherent risks in our current favored modes of energy production. First, this coming Wednesday, April 20th, is the one-year anniversary of the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico which led to the BP or British Petroleum oil spill. Some estimates suggest nearly 5 million barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf from April 20th to July 15th when workers were finally able to cap the damaged wellhead. Other estimates put the number of barrels somewhat lower. Either way, the BP oil spill is considered the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. It was devastating to local marine life and the gulf coast economy. It is still too early to know the true long-term impacts and costs of this massive spill.

Second, the recent, March 11th earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region of Japan—an unspeakably horrible natural disaster that destroyed more than 125,000 structures and will likely reach a final death toll of 25,000 lives—caused equipment failures at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant which has led to radioactive material being released into the environment. This accident is still not yet under control. Just this week officials upgraded it to Level 7 on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s International Nuclear and Radiological Events Scale. This is the IAEA’s highest possible rating, which puts the accident on a par with the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. While Fukushima has so far only emitted one tenth of the radiation of Chernobyl, there are many scientists who fear it will emit far more radiation before it can be fully contained.

I think it’s worth naming these accidents here this morning. They have shaped our experience of the world over the past year. They have given us cause for concern, even alarm. They are sad. They are tragic. They are demoralizing. They remind us that our most favored modes of energy production carry environmental risks not only in the future but in the present. Accidents of these sorts don’t happen often, but when they do—when a perfect storm of problems arises, as was the case on the Deepwater Horizon and at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant—the results can be catastrophic.

Nevertheless, in the wake of these two environmental disasters, what I don’t want to do—though I admit it is tempting, or it might have been a few years ago—is to use this pulpit to identify and rail against the “evils” of off-shore oil drilling and nuclear power. Yes, in the best of all possible worlds, we would not burn fossil fuels to generate energy because they are so deeply implicated in climate change. Yes, in the best of all possible worlds, we would not use nuclear power to generate energy because the waste from the process is so highly toxic and lasts so long. But we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds when it comes to energy. We live in a world so incredibly addicted to its current modes of energy use and production that it is clear to me offshore drilling, deep water drilling and other more dangerous and dirty methods of oil production, along with nuclear power, along with coal, will be with us for the foreseeable future. Railing against them doesn’t strike me as a spiritually sound way to engage our current energy context. It might make us feel more self-righteous, which is rarely helpful for anything. It might help us distance ourselves morally from the problem—yet we are, with most of humanity, part of the problem, so I don’t think moral distance is appropriate. Railing against the sources of greenhouse gasses and toxic waste, at least this morning, won’t change the political reality which still requires all these forms of energy production despite their risks. It won’t transform our energy addictions. What will bring such change and transformation? A billion little things, every day, all across the planet. You don’t need an angry minister. We don’t need an angry congregation. What we need is a congregation full of inspired members who roll up their sleeves and take responsibility for a few of the billion little things that must happen every day.

I don’t want to rail against the system. I also don’t want to get lost in grand ideas. Earlier we heard an excerpt from the “Hindu Declaration on Climate Change”[4] which was presented to a convocation of Hindu spiritual leaders at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2009. I love the far-reaching vision of this statement; I love the grand, sweeping language of transformation: “We must transition to complementarity in place of competition, convergence in place of conflict, holism in place of hedonism, optimization in place of maximization. We must, in short, move rapidly toward a global consciousness that replaces the present fractured and fragmented consciousness of the human race.” But how? It’s tempting for me to revel in this idea of healing the fractured and fragmented consciousness of the human race. I can get lost in the vision sometimes. But we’ve come to a moment—in fact, we’re past it—wherein actions are more essential than grand ideas. There are enough people on the planet who know change needs to happen, enough people who’ve internalized a sense of urgency. It’s time to act. It’s time to get out of our heads and into our bodies. Change will come as individuals, families, faith communities, businesses and municipalities all across the planet take whatever steps are within their power to alter their energy-use behavior and decrease their overall impact on the environment. A billion little things, every day, all across the planet will slowly alter our patterns of energy consumption, will slowly ease our addictions, will slowly establish new markets for clean, renewable energy sources and products. I’m not sure anything else will.

Our congregation is going to do its part. Many of you know we received our designation as a green sanctuary from the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth in 2006, and there is a quite comprehensive list of actions we’ve taken—and continue to take—to ‘green’ our building and our behaviors as a congregation. It is time for our re-accreditation. Our Sustainable Living Committee has been working hard this year to develop a plan for this. I want to share with you what’s in the rough draft of the plan so you can get a sense of how our congregation will continue to change its behavior and reduce its environmental impact in the coming years.

First, we’re going to become more deeply involved in environmental justice work in the larger Manchester community. We hope to build partnerships with local leaders and organizations for the purpose of developing community and school gardens in neighborhoods where there is poor access to locally grown, fresh food. Through these partnerships we also hope to develop a program to help Manchester residents have as much access as possible to resources for making homes more energy efficient.

Here at UUS:E we will continue to monitor our energy consumption to be sure we are using our geo-thermal system and our lights in the most efficient ways possible and to make changes where necessary. In the interest of approaching net-zero energy use, we will research the best ways to finance and install a solar electric system on our roof. Installation of such a system may not be in the very near future, but net-zero energy use is certainly an admirable and, I believe, achievable goal.

On our grounds we will complete the large compost bin system below the new parking lot and add an upper parking lot compost bin for use in the winter. We also hope to build a path over to the old spring in the western end of our woods. We will dedicate the spring as a symbol of spiritual and ecological nourishment and as a source of inspiration for us to actively seek to protect water resources for all—locally and globaly—and to promote the universal right to water. As part of this effort we will explore the possibility of raising funds for a water project in Africa, Asia or Haiti.

Finally, the Sustainable Living Committee will teach a course next fall entitled “A World of Health,” which explores the connections between health and the environment and how we can sustain both. This committee is going to be very active. They always have been. There will be many ways for all of us to be involved. I hope you will find a way to join in this work, to contribute to UUS:E’s share of the billion little things, every day, all across the planet, that must happen if we are to stem the tide of climate change. It is my hope as well that as UUS:E members and friends participate in our efforts, they will be inspired to spread the good news of green living: to bring sustainable, simple living into their homes and out into the world, so that a billion little things gradually become billions of little things.

Today is our observance of Earth Day. Hear me: I am not interested in railing against what is wrong with the current energy system. Today, I’m not interested in pointing fingers. I’m not interested in political idealism when the reality is so far from the ideal. Today I’m not even interested in proclaiming some  grand vision of a healthy planet. I’m interested in the behaviors we have the power to change. I’m interested in the commitments we have the power to make. I’m interested in each of us taking action on behalf of the environment, and knowing that each little thing we do is part of a billion little things, every day, all across the planet. This seems to me to be the most spiritually sound way to engage our energy context, to respond to the environmental needs of our time, to ensure the survival of the human race. This seems to me to be the best way to put our Unitarian Universalist principles into action, particularly our seventh principle, respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. A billion, little things. Can you do your part? A billion little things. Can we do our part? A billion little things. May we all do our part.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] http://www.baptistcreationcare.org/node/1

[2] http://christiansandclimate.org/learn/call-to-action/

[3] http://www.patriarchate.org/patriarch/the-green-patriach

[4] http://www.hinduismtoday.com/pdf_downloads/hindu-climate-change-declaration.pdf